Graphic by Gabe Ferreira
Anonymous: Conspiracy, commotion, codpieces
By Matt Dupree
"Have you heard about this Shakespeare controversy?” This is the sort of viral marketing that Roland Emmerich is counting on for his upcoming film, Anonymous. The film depicts the Oxfordian authorship theory, and will doubtlessly do for Shakespeare what The Da Vinci Code did for Jesus (hint: Kevin Spacey was dead the whole movie). Which is to say that by the time the dust settles and anyone who cares has done the research, Emmerich will have made his money. He’ll probably go back to making movies where bad things happen to national landmarks, and Shakespeare can go back on the mental shelf on which he resides for most folks. He’ll still be spinning in his grave of course, but hopefully for better reasons (like the endless misquotations, misattributions, and fan fiction he’s subjected to).
For the curious reader who doesn’t feel like plopping down ten dollars, the Oxfordian theory suggests that Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, penned the bulk of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. The reason it’s called the “Oxfordian” theory is because it’s merely one of several semi-popular (in the unpopular realm of Shakespearean conspiracy theorists) treatises on who actually wrote Shakespeare. Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and De Vere all make the list of potential “real” Shakespeares, although the theories still remain a rather small blip on the academic radar of Shakespearean literary discussion. So why do these theories grab headlines? I’ll get to that. First, let’s talk turkey.
The Oxfordians (who refer to their critics as Stratfordians, but for our purposes we’ll just call them “the rest of the academic world”) pose that Edward De Vere’s knack for secret poetry (and for secret gay sex) was the reason he chose to remain anonymous. They suggest that though some of Shakespeare’s works were published after De Vere’s death (The Tempest, for example), there’s no way of telling when they were written. The Oxfordians also suggest that De Vere was more familiar with the lands mentioned in the plays and, as a noble, De Vere would have more access to the training and resources required of a professional poet and playwright. Of course, the other camp points out that De Vere was, despite his noble upbringing, a pretty terrible poet and not terribly bright in general. Honestly, just go to Wikipedia. You can overstuff yourself on this debate for as long as you please.
The Oxfordian theory has what Justice Antonin Scalia dubbed “an aristocratic bias,” even in its choice of defenders, which is generally listed off as a sort of who’s-who of bullshit. If Orson Welles was convinced that a commoner couldn’t write that well, shouldn’t we all believe it too? But there’s a deeper current at work in all of this. Shakespeare is unassailably the most discussed literary figure in the history of the world. No other text (aside from religious documents) receives as much critical and academic attention as Shakespeare’s. Thus it behooves the conspiratorially-inclined to line their sights upon the Bard, lest one’s iconoclastic theories fall upon a general chorus of unconcern from the literary world. The mainstream Shakespearean machine too benefits from the continued discussion, however it is generally quick to disparage the fringe at every opportunity. Put simply, the whole thing smells like a publicity stunt. And not even the most explosive and high-flying of stunts will get me to pay to see an Emmerich movie.